Do you ever get so mad that you feel like your blood is literally boiling and your brain is going to explode out of your skull if one more thing pisses you off? Obviously, your blood can’t literally boil, but I challenge you to find someone who hasn’t been so angry that they’ve seriously questioned the possibility. As my son is now at the age where he gets loudly and violently frustrated when he can’t express his emotions, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach him which emotions are which. Happy and sad are pretty easy: I smile overly brightly and shake my hands excitedly for happy. I frown, look down, and lower my voice for sad. Mad is not too hard, either: I clench my fists and squish my face as I shake my head and hands back and forth. But what about the more complicated emotions? How do we express and convey those? Embarrassment, disgust, apprehension? Teaching my son has been a good lesson for me; it’s taught me to learn how I identify and demonstrate what it is I’m feeling.
It’s no coincidence that many of us would choose similar body language and words to represent a specific emotion. Turns out these aren’t just societal or cultural norms; they’re physical reactions. Researched published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that we really do feel different emotions in different parts of our bodies. As I reviewed the results, I could feel myself recognizing and relating to those feelings in each of those physical regions. Disgust gurgles up from your lower abdomen; embarrassment flairs out to the tips of your ears; happiness reaches all the way down to your toes. Anxiety palpitates in the center of your chest, and depression leaves you feeling empty. Envy hurts your heart and your head, and pride swells in your head and chest alike.
Acknowledging how and where we feel different emotions isn’t just useful in teaching a toddler — it’s a way to teach yourself. Recognizing what you’re feeling and how you’re feeling it is the only way to deal with those emotions. The positive feelings are usually pretty straightforward. They typically don’t need “dealing with.” But what about anger, envy, depression, and anxiety? Or disgust, shame, and contempt? Harboring those feelings only allows them to build and gain power over us. Figuring out how to express and ditch those emotions in a healthy way allows us to better enjoy the easy ones, like happiness and love.
Strategies may be different for different people, but knowing where an emotion physically takes a toll can help you figure out what works for you. Here are some scenarios and strategies to try.
How to overcome it: Take a kickboxing or karate class. Want to save? Purchase a punching bag (like this heavy duty punching bag for $25), and set it up in your home gym or hang it in your garage. Exercise, like kickboxing, has been shown to release stress, according to the AFPA, and may be just what you need to get rid of that pent-up stress. I took kickboxing classes religiously in college, and not only did it help me work through any stress and anger of the day, it made me feel strong and powerful.
How to overcome it: A big breath (or 10) may be just what you need. You’d be surprised at how something so simple and seemingly automatic can make such a positive impact on your mood and how you feel about a difficult situation. According to Harvard Health, “Rapid, shallow, erratic breathing is a common response to stress. Slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation.” I was even surprised when I tried the “take a big breath” technique on my toddler and it actually worked! He instantly calmed down. Not to mention, I did, too. If simply breathing doesn’t cut it for you, try a mood-relaxing app, like this one (free on iTunes), on your phone that can play soothing sounds or music.
How to ease it: Find someone to hug! No, seriously. I’m not just being mushy. A hug (or a cuddle or other loving human contact) can rev up oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Oxytocin also helps trigger the release of dopamine, which is one of the feel-good hormones that some anti-depressants target. Even when I’m not feeling particularly down, I know a hug can cheer me up, so when I’m having a particularly rough day, sometimes I ask my husband for a hug instead of trying to explain. He’s probably thankful for that, too.
If you truly feel you’re depressed, seek help from a medical professional. It’s a fact that 14.8 million Americans suffer from depression every year, and a variety of treatments for depression are available to help you.
How to overcome it: Often, the best way to deal with negative thoughts and emotions is to intentionally look on the bright side, but I know someone telling me to do that when I’m feeling vulnerable would just piss me off. GoodTherapy.org suggests “deconstructing” your envy, by taking a good look at what’s really causing it. I take that to mean a good girlfriend or two and a bottle of wine. If you need to work through your envy before you get a chance to hash it out with a friend, try a gratitude app on your phone (like this one, free on Android) or writing down what you’re thankful for in a journal. Envy can be bad if it colors our intentions and actions, but it can also be a good thing, like when it provides a little extra motivation to go for something. Envy often occurs when we’re unhappy about others’ successes. You can choose whether you harbor those feelings of negativity, or you can use them to create your own version of success.
How to manage it: Fear isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it stops us from doing really dumb stuff, like jumping off a cliff that’s too high or running into fast-moving traffic. But other times, fear is something that unnecessarily holds us back from doing things we’d enjoy, like giving rock-climbing a try or speaking in front of an audience. Fear tends to radiate in our chests, much like anxiety, but also stems out into our limbs, all the way down our legs. While some of the strategies for dealing with anxiety can also help with fear, so can tactics like visualizing, talking it out, and rewarding yourself for trying. Since fear tends to radiate throughout our entire body, a good dose of blood-pumping exercise could also help by increasing the amount of happiness-inducing endorphins we have flowing through our veins. Not to mention, exercise in general makes you feel pretty powerful, which can be a good ally when it comes to conquering fear.
No matter what the emotion and why you experience it, how you deal with it is what makes the difference. March is National Stress Month: try one of these strategies or search for your own to relieve unneeded stress; see if you don’t feel a weight lifted from your shoulders, even just a little bit.